Sean Penn Goes ‘Into the Wild’

Fifteen years ago, a young man much like one you would encounter on Ring Mall went on his ‘greatest adventure.’
Chris McCandless graduated from Emory University and talked about law school. He then suddenly donated his life savings to charity, abandoned his car and walked into the wild. Two years later, he failed to walk out.
Literary journalist Jon Krakauer immortalized McCandless in the now widely-read book ‘Into the Wild.’ As director of the film adaptation, Oscar-winner Sean Penn took great artistic liberty.
Krakauer’s account of McCandless’ story is a fairly direct narrative. Krakauer adds sentiment and understanding through comparisons between his own life experiences and those of McCandless. Penn, however, puts emotions to the story through melodramatic dialogue that often borders on preaching.
Krakauer’s narrative voice is replaced by that of Jena Malone, who plays McCandless’ close sister Carine in the film. Carine is the only person who seemed to understand McCandless.
Yet even with her ‘explanations’ of his behavior, McCandless is a difficult person to understand, much less to sympathize with.
Penn intends to convince the audience of McCandless’ sincerity, but fails to generate much empathy. The movie adaptation gives a shallow look at McCandless’ love of nature and greater-life philosophy. Instead, the focus is on his familial problems, suggesting that they are the demons driving McCandless to the Alaskan wilderness.
Penn’s narrative, as well as camerawork, lacks focus. The filming is shaky and irritating. The few snatches of beauty are due not to Penn’s effort, but rather the natural, wondrous beauty of landscapes across America.
The audience follows McCandless from West Virginia, through the Southwest, all the way up to his dream, the Alaska wilderness. In each location, there are breathtaking backdrops that distract from the film’s shortcomings.
The movie is divided into chapters whose names have no obvious relation to the content. At other times, the movie is divided by location.
Krakauer’s novel was linear and, therefore, easy to follow and suspenseful. The film adaptation, however, is patchy and confused.
Where Penn fails to capitalize on a great story, lead actor Emile Hirsch succeeds in fully encapsulating the complex character of McCandless. Hirsch’s enthusiasm is apparent in his deliverance of lines and physical actions. Hirsch gives McCandless an eagerness that almost excuses many other objectionable attributes.
McCandless detests the material life and claims to have no need for money. Yet many of the supplies he uses are bought. He renames himself ‘Alexander Supertramp,’ traveling by hitchhiking or jumping onto trains. For all of his talk of independence, McCandless is actually reliant on people and the innovations of the society he hates.
The main character constantly describes humans as sinners of society and hypocrites, his critical magnifying glass on everyone but himself. Ironically enough, McCandless is often guilty of that which he preaches against.
The movie does not serve as a very effective lens into Chris’ restless psyche. We see how, but not why, he comes to the end point, with many gruesome scenes along the way.
Penn decides to show raw footage of nature that is difficult to stomach, turning the audience’s attention to disgust rather than compassion.
In his desperation in the wild, McCandless hunts anything from a moose to squirrels, roasting and devouring them all in front of the camera.
Even so, men have invented home comforts for a reason, and the Alaskan wild cannot be tamed. McCandless wastes away and it is in these final, agonizing moments that he learns more than his whole time of travel. We are left without substantial understanding and only the haunting image of disaster.